Posts Tagged ‘Wartime’

Stella. A Life. (2024)

Dir: Killian Riedhof | Cast: Paula Beer, Bekim Latifi, Damian Hardung, Joel Basman | Germany Drama 121′

This horrifying wartime tragedy kicks off in good spirits. In a Berlin nightclub to dazzling strains of Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing Sing Sing’ the harried main character Stella is an aspiring jazz singer only just facing up to the unspeakable terrors of her hometown under Nazi rule.

The daytime sees her slaving away in a garment factory where the Jewish workers are one day rounded up and shot. But Stella, based on the real life of Stella Goldschlag, is determined not to end her life in Auschwitz. In fact, so determined, that she would go on to betray her fellow Jews, some of them close friends, to the Gestapo, just to salvage her own dreams.  

Looking wan and washed out for her gruelling role, Paula Beer turns in another dynamite performance as a highly suggestible woman on the brink whose life is turned upside down when she refuses to submit to the constraints of being a Jew in Nazi Germany just when her musical career is starting to take off.

Hounded, questioned and subjected to continuous scrutiny, Stella and her parents are forced into hiding where she realises the only way to survive is to play a double game. But that will have consequences for the brittle blue-eyed anti-heroine – who is both victim and perpetrator – as she tries desperately to juggle her life with various powerful protagonists in a bid to avoid deportation to Auschwitz. Sadly her story turns into a nightmarish maelstrom of torture, duplicity – and ultimately guilt.

With its febrile tone and intense pacing Stella. A Life conjures up the palpable fear and very real trauma Nazi Germany instils in its Jewish population in 1944 and shows how ordinary people are capable of evil, in certain circumstances. Some of the set pieces are truly harrowing. particularly a scene where Stella is picked up by her hair, and brutally kicked in the head during an interrogation. Riedhof certainly knows how to create atmosphere but his script suffers from an under-developed storyline, and Stella’s descent into evil is never convincingly realised in a thriller that gradually gives way to sensationalism with a series of traumatic interludes, rather than a cohesive narrative.

Stella. A Life is an effective exploration of the horrors of war and the devastating emotional and physical effects on the victims in their desperate will to survive – until guilt rears its ugly head. @MeredithTaylor 


The Cockleshell Heroes (1955) ****

Dir: José Ferrer | US drama 97′

Based on a true story and a book by George Kent, US filmmaker José Ferrer directs and stars in this popular and quintessentially British wartime caper that sees Royal Marines embark on a daring mission to destroy enemy shipping at the height of the Second World War. Trevor Howard and Ferrer lead a strong cast of commandoes who undertake an intense night-time sortie on collapsible canoes into the comparative safety of the port of Bordeaux where the German ships are tucked away. The plan is to blow them all up with limpet mines, but the execution is far more perilous and gruelling affair, making for a grippingly tense drama. Christopher Lee, Anthony Newley and Dora Bryan also star, MT

Eureka Classics is proud to present the film in its worldwide debut on Blu-ray.

Available to order from:

Eureka Store  


Sink the Bismarck (1960) **** Bluray release

Dir: Lewis Gilbert | Cast: Kenneth Moore, Dana Wynter, Carl Mohner, Laurence Naismith | UK, Wartime Drama 97′

British post-war cinema was fraught with films depicting how we triumphed with our Allies. And one of the most successful and stylish was this 1960 epic featuring actual combat footage. Lewis Gilbert bases his spectacular action thriller on real events that took place when British warships set off to eliminate the pride of the German fleet, the Bismarck, in the North Atlantic. Kenneth Moore is the star turn as the British naval officer tasked with leading the 1940s mission, and putting duty first when still recovering from his wife’s death in an air raid. Sink the Bismarck depicts the human story behind the war effort, showing respect for the enemy, and commemorating the courage of our own brave soldiers, and the unsung ‘backroom heroes.’ This thrilling and authentic adventure drama also features the cruiser HMS Belfast (now preserved on the Thames in London) which was used to depict the cruisers involved in Bismarck’s pursuit. MT

Srbenka (2018) **** Marrakech International Film Festival 2018

Dir.: Nebojsa Slijepcevic; Documentary with Oliver Frljic; Croatia 2018, 70 min.

Director/writer/DoP Nebojsa Slijepcevic (Gangster of Love) explores peer violence towards children  of different nationalities in Croatia, and examines how the generation born after the war copes with the dark shadows of history. 

The documentary is set in a Zagreb theatre, during the rehearsals of a play called Aleksandra Zec where the star turn is a Serbian girl who was murdered together with her whole family in 1991, just before the outbreak of war between Serbia and Croatia after the implosion of Yugoslavia. The murder of Aleksandra Zec and her family was an act of social cleansing, and Frljic wanted to show how the wounds of the war are still influencing daily life, not only in Croatia. One actor asks: “Do I become a Serb, because I am in a play about a murdered Serbian girl?” During the rehearsal and on the eve of the premiere, right-wing protesters threatened the director and his girl friend with violence. They were holding up placards saying “Why not a play about the 86 kids of Vukovar”, who were killed during a bombing raid in the civil war. Frljic wanted to detach actors from the play itself, so he let all of them talk about their feelings about the play and the Civil War. Four 12-year old girls – the same age as Aleksandra when she was killed – were also taking part in the play. They too were asked about their feelings, and some of them comment about their fear of Roma – “because when they break their arm, it heals quicker than ours, or “they are like lizards, when they lose a tail, it grows back quickly.”

Their role in the play is to ask the dead girl about her feelings towards her assailants. One of the girls has nightmares after rehearsals, she dreams about killing her sister and taking her organs out. They all admit to bullying Roma children at school. One of girl reports, that a class mate of her did not go to Catholic RE, and was called a Jew. One of the quartet, Nina Batanic, is actually Serbian, she has hidden this from her classmates, particularly from the boy who sits next to her and told her “I like to kill all Serbians, cutting their throat with my teeth”. But Nina is so brave she admits at the evening of the premiere that she is Serbian. After the play is over the camera follows her lingering on the way home.

Even after 25 years, the war is still the central issue. The fear of “the other” is kept alive by right-wing Nationalists, who see anybody who is not Croatian as an enemy. The trauma lets the violence simmer permanent under the surface. Frljic and Slijepcevic see their project as therapeutic, hoping, that when questions about nationality and minorities are brought to the surface, the resentment of ‘others’ might be reduced. But the four girls are living proof, how long the way to anything like a reconciliation still is. Srbenka is brave, but leaves little hope for the future –  and that goes for the whole of Europe. AS


Yanks (1979)**** Dual format release

John Schlesinger’s YANKS, a moving and romantic WWII tale of love starring Richard Gere and Vanessa Redgrave is based on Lancashire born Colin Welland’s original story, he also wrote the script.

Colin Welland was one of England’s finest film and TV writers best known for The Dry White Season (1989), Chariots of Fire (1981) and numerous popular TV series including Play for Today and Armchair Theatre. He also appeared in Kes (1969); Straw Dogs (1971) and Villain (1971).

Capturing all the subtle emotional complexity that marked Schlesinger out as a one of our finest directors, this captivating social drama is imbued with English sensibilities of the local characters that contrast so eloquently with the looser and more playful US soldiers, YANKS is full of sweepingly romantic moments and amusing interludes that show how easily petty resentments or racial differences could easily catch fire in the heat of the moment inflaming hearts and minds fraught with the stresses of wartime occupancy.

Ambitious yet intimate YANKS is a World War II epic that won BAFTAs for Best Costume Design (Shirley Russell) and Best Supporting Actress (Rachel Roberts). John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Far from the Madding Crowd) went on to get the Evening Standard British Film Award in 1981. Crucially, his drama focuses on the human angle, avoiding battle scenes to explore the romantic and social entanglements between the locals and the U.S. soldiers stationed in a small town in Greater Manchester just before the Normandy landings of 1945. The American G.I.s set female hearts aflutter across the social divide: in one amusing scene in a train station Mollie (Wendy Morgan) cries”Excuse me, I’m pregnant!”. A woman quickly responds: “So is half the bloody town, love!”.

Gere is particularly charismatic as Sgt. Matt Dyson, falling for Lisa Eichhorn’s delicate heroine Jean Moreton who misses her fiancée Stan overseas. Redgrave is wealthy socialite Helen, engaged in an affair with a gallant captain (William Devane), while desperate to remain faithful to her husband serving in the British Navy. Sergeant Ruffelo’s romantic interlude with Mollie (Wendy Morgan) shows how romance can be heightened by wartime adversity when love and lust helped to counteract the stress and uncertainty of conflict.

Schlesinger had a rare gift for capturing romantic desire and yearning in a typically understated English way, and Yanks was a personal passion project for director whose success with Marathon Man (1976) here allowed him free creative rein. Although the film never really caught fire upon initial release, here is emerges as a soaring classic wartime romance that really deserves to be revisited – hankies at the ready. MT



They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) 2018 *****

Dir: Peter Jackson | Doc | UK | 99′

The Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson shows what it was like to be a solider fighting in the trenches in the First World War where 1 million men lost their lives between 1914-18). Jackson’s New Zealand-based Weta special-effects house uses 3D film and combines cutting edge special effects with archive footage that actually comes to life offering a first hand experience of the trenches, the gunfire, the mud and the death. (courtesy of ).It’s a colossal achievement and fascinating in its down to earth detail.

Sifting through 600 hours of archive footage collated from Imperial War Museums, and overlaying a voiceover of actual testimonies of veterans, also from Imperial War Museums, recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, Jackson puts us in the thick of it with an in-depth start to finish experience of what actually happened when war was declared on Germany in 1914. He describes not only the excitement and sense of duty, but also the banality of fighting for youngsters who returned to Britain on the train to Victoria Station, when the ‘guns suddenly ceased”. And not as heroes, but as unemployed, unemployable often broken men. The Great War has been much romanticised in novels and poetry. Here, Jackson takes the romantic image out of the equation, and gives us a gruelling but also shocking images of mass latrines, open wounds, eviscerated bodies. The stench, but also the pity of war, and the camaraderie too. One soldier reminisces: “it was like a camping holiday with the boys, only with a spice of danger”; another: “the Germans were decent family men, and their loved their kids”.

Jackson shows us how the soldiers made tea from the hot water that cooled their machine guns, and how they got tired of endless plum and apple jam. There are clips of British soldiers enlisting in 1914, of soldiers training, and then boarding decommissioned “pleasure boats” to France where they were offered bottles of wine and raided the fields for carrots. And it’s inclusive – we see Indian soldiers marching in turbans, along with the British platoons.

Jackson’s 3D film feels smooth and non-jerky as it yields up its superbly restored coloured treasures. The voiceover is achieved through lip-read recreated dialogue as the soldiers literally come alive to tell their own story, their faces demonstrating at first hand the smiles, the fear and even the mistrust.

There are naturally elements missing such as footage of the actual battles due to the difficulty of transporting the heavy photographic equipment to the scene. The guns were moved by horses, who sadly often sank into the “viscous” mud. But Jackson takes us there amongst the soldiers in the fray – and we feel for them. It’s a heart-breaking endeavour but infinitely worthwhile. If you only watch one film this year, watch this one. MT

Peter Jackson’s THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD will be released in cinemas nationwide, from 9th November with a special pre-recorded Q&A with Peter Jackson (3D and 2D). It will then premiere on Armistice Day (Sunday 11th Nov) on BBC Two at 9.30pm and will be released on home entertainment platforms later this year. 


Ealing Film Studios: A Retrospective

Man In The White Suit Britain’s best-loved, independent cinema organisation, EALING STUDIOS, produced a dazzling array of comedies and noirish dramas during the 1940s and 50s, adding a rich vein of provocative and subversive films to the British film canon, some of them surprisingly radical in their implications.

The Studios has a unique place in the history of British cinema and has become a byword for a certain type of British whimsy and eccentricity but it also pioneered the underdog spirit, producing some tough, cynical and challenging portraits of British life. During the War years, Ealing produced romantic features that roused the British public during the War effort and the studio’s films boasted a surprising variety of characters from all walks of life. Many of these now rank among the undisputed cult classics of British cinema, among them Dead of NightThe Blue LampThe Cruel SeaThe Man in the White Suit and Passport to Pimlico. There are many other worthwhile features that have been unseen or inaccessible for decades.

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY  (1947)  Set over a single 24-hour period in postwar Bethnal Green, Robert Hamer’s noir-ish thriller was Ealing Studios’ first popular success and it widely considered one of the greatest achievements of British Cinema of the last 1940s.

Ealing was presided over by Michael Balcon, a towering figure in British cinema who was an early supporter of Alfred Hitchcock. He gathered around him a band of talented collaborators including the very influential Braziilian Cavalcanti brothers and directors Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden and Alexander McKendrick.  Battling against competition and a certain hostility from the major studios of Rank and the American giant Hammer he successfully ran Ealing for more than 20 years.

Today Ealing Studios is the oldest working film studio in the world and the only British studio that produces and distributes feature films as well as providing facilities. It recently joined forces with leading film financier Prescience, co-formed in 2005 by Paul Brett and Tim Smith, to create the new one-stop international sales company ‘Ealing Metro’.  Prescience uniquely positions Ealing Metro as an international sales and distribution company that can deliver an integrated solution for filmmakers.  Through Prescience and its Aegis Film Fund, Ealing Metro works with independent producers to help develop and finance product so that, along with Ealing Studios’ own productions, it can market and sell a unique and growing slate in the international marketplace.

The theme of Ealing: Light & Dark is a rich and revealing one. Even the renowned comedies have a dark side within them: Kind Hearts and Coronets is a wittily immoral tale of a serial killer in pursuit of a dukedom; Whisky Galore! has a mischievous approach to law and order as a Scottish island population attempt to beat the Customs men to the free whisky washed ashore from a shipwreck.  

Part of the enduring appeal of Ealing is its witty challenging of authority in films such as Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob, which touched a nerve with audiences eager for social and political change faced with the austerity of the immediate post-war era.

Beyond the apparent frothy entertainment, Ealing’s darker side dares to show wartime failures, imagine the threat of invasion or to contemplate the unsavoury after-effects of the war in the subtly supernatural The Ship That Died of Shame or the European noir Cage of Gold, in which Jean Simmons is lured by the charms of an homme fatal. Another pan-European story, Secret People (featuring an early appearance for Audrey Hepburn), contemplates the ethics of assassination, while in Frieda, Mai Zetterling faces anti-German prejudice in a small English town.

The posters for Ealing Studios films feature artwork by many of the era’s greatest artists including John Piper, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Edward Ardizzone and Mervyn Peake, while the acting talent is a roll-call of many of Britain’s greatest performers, among them Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Margaret Rutherford, Joan Greenwood, Dennis Price, Jean Simmons, Googie Withers, Michael Redgave, John Mills, Thora Hird, Diana Dors, James Fox, Virginia McKenna, Herbert Lom, Maggie Smith, Jack Warner, Alastair Sim, Will Hay and many more.

E A L I N G   F I L M   N O I R


UK 1942. Dir Thorold Dickinson. With Mervyn Johns, Guy Mas, Basil Radford,

Nova Pilbeam, Thora Hird. 102min

Ealing’s first major artistic triumph for the war effort, Next of Kin is a cautionary tale about careless talk and the scourge of fifth columnists at large in the UK. The film’s sober tone marked a change in war propaganda for Ealing, whose earlier blind celebration of military prowess gives way to an authentic depiction of the dangers and sacrifices faced by the wartime nation. Plus All Hands (UK 1941. Dir John Paddy Carstairs. 9min) a MoI short that warns of the dangers of careless talk in the navy.


Dir Alberto Cavalcanti. With Leslie Banks, Basil Sydney, Frank Lawton, Elizabeth Allan. 93min. PG

In the middle of World War II  Cavalcanti provocatively imagined a postwar England in which the failure of the threatened German invasion could be safely seen in flashback, thanks to the resourceful villagers of Bramley End. Once the ostensibly British troops in their village are revealed as Nazis, and the local squire as a fifth columnist, the community unites and fights back with startling ferocity. A call to arms as persuasive as Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.


UK 1945. Dir Alberto Cavalcanti. With Googie Withers, Mervyn Johns, Michael Ralph, Michael Redgrave. 102min

Straying from more familiar realist fare, Dead of Night was Ealing’s only venture into the horror genre. The film recounts five supernatural tales, held together by a linking story which itself has a creepy conclusion – a forerunner to the anthology films that flourished in the early 1970s. The film’s nightmarish world of haunted mirrors and ghostly hearses lingers long after the closing credits, with Michael Redgrave’s performance as a crazed ventriloquist proving particularly unsettling.


UK 1945. Dir Robert Hamer. With Googie Withers, Mervyn Johns, Gordon Jackson, Sally Ann Howes. 89min. PG

Two worlds collide in this melodrama set in Victorian Brighton: a repressive household, run by a tyrannical chemist, and a sleazy tavern, presided over by a passionate landlady. The chemist’s son (Jackson) finds himself, understandably enough, in thrall to the landlady (Withers). His naïve passion and rebellious feelings against his father lead him into a murder plot from which he barely escapes, prompting a very equivocal happy ending.


UK 1947. Dir. Basil Dearden. With David Farrar, Glynis Johns, Mai Zetterling, Flor Robson. 98min. PG

Telling the story of a family trying to make sense of a postwar world, Frieda asks the question, ‘Does a good German exist?’ There isn’t one simple answer but many, represented by the varying reactions of the inhabitants of the English village of Denfield when a German refugee arrives as the wife of one of their war heroes. In her first British film, Zetterling portrays Frieda sympathetically but the film allows the audience to reach its own conclusion over her individual responsibility for the horrors of war.


UK 1948. Dir Basil Dearden. With Joan Greenwood, Stewart Granger, Peter Bull,Flora Robson. 96min. U

In this rare excursion for Ealing into historical drama, Bull and Greenwood are perfectly cast as the dissolute Prince George-Louis and his reluctant bride Sophie-Dorothea. Shooting in colour for the first time allowed the studio to give full rein to the period costumes and sets (the latter were nominated for an Oscar). The design provides an evocative backdrop to the princess’s tragic story. As her lover, Granger shows why he was soon poached by Hollywood, his stature and looks making him the perfect screen hero.


UK 1949. With Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood, Wylie Watson, Bruce Seaton,

Gordon Jackson. 82min. PG

Mackendrick’s glorious debut was the second of the trio of 1949 films that defined Ealing Comedy. When the whisky-parched Todday islanders spy salvation in the form of a shipwreck and 50,000 contraband cases, first they must outwit the morally upstanding English home guard Captain Waggett. One in the eye for puritan English priggishness and a joyous salute to the transformative power of a ‘wee dram’ – or ‘the longest unsponsoredadvertisement ever to reach cinema screens the world over,’ as producer Monja Danischewsky put it.


UK 1949. Dir Robert Hamer. With Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood,

Valerie Hobson. 106min. U

Even Hitchcock couldn’t make murder this much fun. Hamer’s ageless classic challenges The Ladykillers for the title of Ealing’s blackest comedy (call it a score draw, though Kind Hearts has the higher body count). Near perfect script and direction are crowned by wondrous performances. History tends to remember Guinness’s virtuoso turn as all seven members of the lofty, aristocratic D’Ascoynes. But it’s really Price’s film: as the D’Ascoynes’ ruthless nemesis Louis he gives us surely the screen’s wittiest and most charming psychopath.


UK 1950. Dir Basil Dearden. With Jean Simmons, David Farrer, James Donald,

Herbert Lom. 83min. PG

Simmons’s only film for Ealing is an unfairly neglected slice of Euro-noir, built upon the (apparently) un-Ealing foundations of passion, infidelity and blackmail. Simmons is a nice, middle-class girl with a nice, steady fiancé who is enticed to the dark side by the return of an old flame. The film flits between cosy suburbia and a vivid Parisian demi-monde, and if the conclusion inevitably opts for safety, the alternative is painted with relish, and Farrer, as ever, makes an appealing rogue.


UK 1951. Dir. Alexander McKendrick. With Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough,Ernest Thesiger. 85min. U

Mackendrick’s plague-on-all-your houses industrial satire may be the most cynical Ealing film of all. Guinness delivers his most complex comic performance as the unworldly genius Sidney, whose invention of an indestructible, dirt-proof fabric terrifies textile barons and trade unions alike. A parable of the inexorability of technological progress and the tyranny of vested interests – with some sly sexual politics thrown in – it’s as acerbic a piece of social commentary as ever escaped from Ealing.


UK 1952. Dir Thorold Dickinson. With Valentina Cortese, Serge Reggiani, Charles

Goldner. 96min. PG

An untypical Ealing film, drawing on Dickinson’s own Spanish Civil War experiences. Maria (Cortese), orphaned in London, is a hesitant revolutionary enlisted by her lover to  assassinate her country’s fascist leader, the man responsible for her father’s death. Compelling and strikingly inventive, Secret People upset contemporary critics for its  apparent indecision, but today it seems an intriguing study of a moral dilemma, with engaging performances from its Italian leads and a notable early role for young Audrey Hepburn.


UK 1952. With Phyllis Calvert, Jack Hawkins, Terence Morgan, Mandy Miller,

Edward Chapman. 93min. PG

In this rare Ealing tearjerker, Calvert and Morgan play a couple who disagree about how best to help their deaf child; their relationship is strained further when they become pawns in a political situation at a special school. The story is presented largely from the female point of view and Calvert gives an exceptionally moving performance as the mother torn between her husband and her child. Mandy never succumbs to mawkishness, approaching the subject with sensitivity and reason.


UK 1952. Dir Charles Frend. With Virginia McKenna, Stanley Baker. 126min

The ‘Battle of the Atlantic’, as experienced by the captain and first

lieutenant of an anti-submarine convoy escort. Based on Nicholas

Monsarrat’s novel, Ealing’s most popular war film celebrates the commitment and bravery of the British naval forces but isn’t afraid to engage with the harsh realities of combat. Jack Hawkins and Donald Sinden lend British grit to the military spectacle and claustrophobic tension, depicting those men shaped and permanently shadowed by the war.


UK 1954. With Paul Douglas, Alex Mackenzie, Abe Barker, Tommy Kearins,

Hubert Gregg. 92min. U

An unsentimental counterpart to Ealing’s The Titfield Thunderbolt, with the latter’s vintage steam train crewed by high-spirited amateurs replaced by a ramshackle ‘puffer’ boat and its gnarly old skipper. The devious MacTaggart cheats his way to the commission to transport a US businessman’s cargo – the first in a series of indignities heaped on his hapless client. The Maggie pits wealth and modernity against heritage and intransigence in a gleeful subversion of Ealing’s ‘small versus big’ convention.


UK 1955. Dir Basil Dearden. With George Baker, Richard Attenborough, Bill Owen,

Virginia McKenna. 95min

Director Basil Dearden combines sharp thrills with loose social commentary in this tale of Motor Gun Boat 1087 and her once-celebrated officers now turned smugglers. Ealing’s occasional engagement with the supernatural and nostalgia for the war is spun into one of the studio’s darkest and best final films. Richard Attenborough is on form as a crooked chancer making the best out of the bleak social realities of postwar Britain.


UK 1958. Dir Seth Holt. With George Nader, Maggie Smith, Bernard Lee, Bessie

Love. 97min. U

A rare, late excursion into noir for Ealing Studios, scripted by first-time director Holt and critic Ken Tynan. A good-looking ex-con (Nader) coolly robs an old lady of her coin collection, anticipating prison, but also the later recovery of the proceeds. Nothing proves that simple and he discovers the truth of the film’s title. Stylish low-key cinematography, a jazz score and Maggie Smith’s debut performance add to the pleasure.



UK 1939. Dir Penrose Tennyson. With James Hanley, Edward Rigby, Edward Chapman, Mary Clare. 81 min

An aspiring boxer hopes to transcend humble origins and build a name for himself, but comes up against the corruption of the sporting establishment. ‘The film that begs to differ’, announced the publicity for this first film by Ealing’s youngest director, the gifted 25-year-old Pen Tennyson, great-grandson of Lord Alfred. It’s a striking departure from the shallow representation of working-class life in 1930s British films, and the first film to set out recognisably Ealing values: decency, courage and an optimistic faith in humanity and community.


UK 1939. Dir Walter Forde. With Edmund Gwenn, Peter Coke, Nova  Pilbeam,  84 min.

An ‘Ealing comedy’ before its time? Venerable family brewery Greenleaf finds itself under threat from monopolistic industry titan Ironside. But with an unlikely ally in Ironside’s lovelorn scion, plucky little Greenleaf mounts a courageous fightback. Predating Passport to Pimlico and its comic cohort by a decade, this half-forgotten film was an almost uncanny premonition of Ealing delights to come, in its evocation of community, gently progressive values and ‘small v. big’ dynamic. A missing link in the Ealing story, then, but thanks to comedy veteran Forde, a joyous one.


UK 1943. Dir Basil Dearden. With Philip Friend, Tommy Trinder, James Mason, Mervyn Johns. 90 min.

“In the East End they say London isn’t a town, it’s a group of villages,” begins Dearden’s tribute to the intrepid firefighters confronting the Luftwaffe’s nightly raids. Village London is a very Ealing conception: the vast, anonymous city reduced to a more human scale. But The Bells Go Down is no mere sentimental homily. Its community has its share of divisions, petty squabbles and criminality, but these fade in the face of a common enemy and the stoic endurance of routine tragedy. An inspiring companion piece to Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started.


UK 1943. Dir Charles Frend. With Ralph Michael, Walter Fitzgerald, Robert Beatty, Gordon Jackson. 104 min.

In 1940 the oil tanker San Demetrio, half torn apart by U-boat torpedoes but still somehow afloat, was valiantly rescued by a handful of its crew and steered home through treacherous Atlantic waters. Frend’s admirable second feature takes a true story of wartime heroism and, without sensationalism or triumphalism, shapes it into something approaching national myth (the damaged but defiant ship stands for Britain, the crew a people united by determination, courage and democratic values). It’s Ealing’s most potent and inspiring fusion of propaganda, documentary and people’s war ideals.


UK 1944. Dir Basil Dearden. With Googie Withers, John Clements, Raymond Huntley, Renée Gadd. 78 min.

This most unusual of Ealing’s features has long been hard to see and is now in a new digital transfer. A fantastical allegory from the pen of J.B. Priestley, it transports nine disparate Britons to a mysterious city. What they find there is, according to their class and disposition, either an earthly paradise of peace and equality or a hell starved of ambition and riches. A film once dismissed as naïve and uncinematic, it has more recently been viewed as a striking expression of its era’s most utopian impulse.


UK 1950. Dir Basil Dearden. With Jack Warner, Dirk Bogarde, James Hanley, Peggy Evans. 82 min.

Ealing’s defining contribution to the police procedural genre – with ex-policeman T.E.B. Clarke’s script lending authenticity – sits on the border between the studio’s dark and light sides. There’s tragedy at its core, and a portrait of snarling, lawless youth (a mesmerising young Dirk Bogarde) that’s tough for its time, not least for Ealing. But if it takes us to dark places, its conclusion expresses an irrepressibly optimistic and comforting vision of the ability of society to overcome its most hostile elements.


UK 1940. Dir Pen Tennyson. With Paul Robeson, Simon Lack, Edward Chapman, Janet Johnson. 77 min.

An American seaman is welcomed into a Welsh mining village and bolsters a community facing industrial decline and the tremors of war.  Paul Robeson brings warmth, integrity and powerful bass tones to his role as David Goliath, the figure around whom the struggling miners unite and discover their own proud voices.  Pen Tennyson directs this simple story with compassion, beauty and dignity to make The Proud Valley one of the most satisfying of early Balcon-era Ealing. 


UK 1944. Dir Basil Dearden. With Mervyn Johns, Francoise Rosay, Glynis Johns, Esmond Knight. 96 min.

Towards the end of the war, Ealing films took a positive turn and The Halfway House uses a ghostly setting to look towards a future in which wartime problems such as black marketeering, broken relationships and mourning for lost ones are left behind. A disparate group of people find themselves at a remote inn in the Welsh valleys which turns out not to be quite what it seems. A fine ensemble cast balances the film’s humour with its more serious undertones and the supernatural atmosphere is reinforced by a haunting score.


UK 1946. Dir Harry Watt. 

With Chips Rafferty, Daphne Campbell, John Fernside, John Nugent Hayward, Peter Pagan. 91 min.

A band of Australian drovers, led by Dan McAlpine (Chips Rafferty), drive 1000 cattle across the harsh Northern Territory to fresh pastures in Brisbane. Ealing’s first Australian production is a stellar tribute to the country’s WWII scorched earth defence against the Japanese.  Rafferty embraces the sprit of defiance that characterised a nation under threat of invasion, while director Harry Watt brings a documentary sensibility that celebrates the sheer ambition and vast achievement of the drive.


UK 1946. Dir Charles Crichton. With Harry Fowler, Jack Warner, Alastair Sim 82 min  Script: T E B Clarke

In the first of the EALING COMEDIES, Harry Fowler leads the ‘Blood and Thunder Boys’, a group of adolescents who discover their favourite boys-own magazine is being used by criminals to plan robberies. Largely acknowledged as the first in Ealing’s cycle of post-war comedies, Hue and Cry gives us a joyfully chaotic of the kind of English eccentrics which would come to characterise the later films.  Alistair Sim and Jack Warner are the old hands whose exaggerated performances lead a cast of mostly newcomers.

UK 1948. Dir Charles Frend. With John Mills, Kenneth More, John Gregson, James Roberston Justice. 109 min.

Michael Balcon’s self-confessed preference was for tales of adventure and derring-do and Scott fits the bill perfectly. The British spirit of endeavour and determination, even to the point of foolhardiness, pervades the film, as Scott’s expedition gets ever closer to failure. Filming in Technicolor was an interesting choice given the bleak locations but the scenery is captured exquisitely and offers a dramatic backdrop to the exploits of the party. Vaughan Williams’ score heightens the drama so poignantly enacted by Mills and the rest of the sterling cast.


UK 1949. Dir Henry Cornelius. With Stanley Holloway, Margaret Rutherford, Jane Hylton, Paul Dupuis. 84 min.

A group of Pimlico residents discover that they are in fact citizens of the Duchy of Burgundy, a change of nationality that offers them the opportunity to dodge post-war strictures. Tearing up their ration books, they embark on self-governance but soon find that, despite all its problems, Blighty is the best place to be. Cornelius’s only directing credit for Ealing (though he went on to success with Genevieve), Passport to Pimlico is perhaps the studio’s most joyous celebration of Britishness.


UK 1950. Dir Charles Frend. With William Fox, Stephen Murray, Kay Walsh, Meredith Edwards. 79 min.

James Fox, (credited here as William) plays Johnny, a 10-year-old who tricks a younger boy into giving him a toy magnet.  Feeling guilty over his deception Johnny anonymously offers the magnet to auction, but when it raises raise enough funds to buy a life saving piece of hospital equipment he is nowhere to be found.  A comedy of childhood errors, The Magnet pokes fun at a cosy adult world made insensible by the fantasies of some of its younger  inhabitants.  Ealing regulars Gladys Henson, Thora Hird and a disguised James Robertson Justice provide support. 


UK 1955. With Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom, Cecil Parker, Peter Sellers, Danny

Green, Katie Johnson. 97min. U

Everyone’s favourite knockabout black comedy caper – or a political fable with the ‘ladykillers’ as the incoming post-war Labour government and the little old ladies as the obstacles of Conservative tradition? Beyond any doubt The Ladykillers is the last great Ealing comedy, and the studio’s final production before its sale to the BBC.American screenwriter William Rose apparently dreamed up the plot overnight, but casting, script, production design, and the Technicolor camerawork combine effortlessly for the blackest of farces.

Rivalling Kind Hearts and Coronets for the gleeful blackness of its humour. Posing as an amateur string quintet while planning a robbery at Kings Cross, an ill-assorted group of crooks led by the sinister Professor Marcus (Guinness) rent rooms from a sweet little old lady (Johnson). Despite a few setbacks, the Professor’s plan works superbly. But there’s one factor he hasn’t allowed for… At 77, veteran bit-part player Johnson all but walks off with the film.

 UK 1951. Dir Charles Crichton. With Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sidney James, Alfie Bass. 78 min.

Ealing’s theme of the ‘little man fighting back’ finds its culmination here, as upstanding citizens Guinness and Holloway turn to crime, hooking up with two small time crooks to form a gang of unlikely gold smugglers. The heroes’ dreams of freeing themselves from wage slavery in a grey, bombed out London have us rooting for them against the inept police pursuit. Writer T. E. B. Clarke’s comic observations are spot on; he creates a postwar Britain in which demure-looking little old ladies devour American detective fiction with relish.


UK 1952. Dir Charles Crichton. With Stanley Holloway, George Relph, John Gregson, Hugh Griffith, Sid James. 87 min.

The commuters of Titfield form an amateur rail company when they discover that their local branch line is to close.  Despite physical opposition from a rival bus company, the train enthusiasts unite behind their eccentric village vicar (Relph) and his affable drunk benefactor (Holloway), to bumble their way to an operators licence.  Perhaps the archetype of ‘Ealing Light’ Crichton’s gentle and nostalgic film was also the studio’s first made in colour.

Many of these films are available on DVD/Blu atand HUE and CRY, THE LADYKILLERS, THE MAGNET are re-released by STUDIO CANAL in June\July 2015


Testament of Youth (2014)

Dir.: James Kent;  Writers: Juliette Towhidi from the original book by Vera Britain

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Emma Watson, Dominic West, Hayley Atwell

UK 2014, 130 min. Drama

Based on Vera Brittain’s well-known wartime memoir of the name, TESTAMENT OF YOUTH is a study of loss and change. Not only the loss of a whole generation of young men in the First World War, but the loss of identity of the British middle classes and their sheltered existence of innocence and naivety. Standards, cultural ambitions and their belief in slow progress were rocked to the core and shattered in the trenches and mass slaughter in France. What arose, like a phoenix from the ashes, was the advent of feminism; the slow emancipation of women.

In James Kent’s excellent screen adaptation, Vera Brittain (a spirited Alicia Vikander) embodies both loss and change. We first see her in peace time, at the family home in Yorkshire. Her parents (Emily Watson and Dominic West) can hardly cope with their rebellious daughter, whose goal is to study literature in Oxford. Her father tries to placate her with the gift of a piano, but in vain, Vera wants it all. Supported by her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), and his friend Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington), she finally gets the parental consent and passes her entrance-examine at Somerville College Oxford. When war arrives, her father does not want Edward to serve, but Vera defends the right of her brother to fulfil his patriotic duty. Having fallen in love with Roland, who writes poetry like herself, Vera says goodbye twice. When the two men come home from the front for a short holiday, the strain is obvious. The difference between the war slogans and the traumatic reality in the trenches is enormous. Vera can’t stand the sedate life in Oxford anymore, and enrols as a nurse. In France, she saves the life of her brother, and after her mother has a nervous breakdown, she meets Roland again and they promise to marry when he comes home.

Being a BBC co-production, technical values, particularly production design and camera are in reliable hands. Yorkshire is as magnificent as the trenches are grim and the field hospitals are awash with the blood of carnage. Oxford looks spectacular with its dreamy spires gently tracing the skyline, and the Brittain’s mansion is exquisite. We have seen all this before but the reason to see this version is Alicia Vikander, who storms through the film like stick of dynamite, lifting the conventional goings to another level. Her resistance is as heartfelt as her mourning, her anger fired by indignance and ambition. She is well supported by Harington’s Roland Leighton, a sensitive poet and brave soldier, the epitome of the dashing hero of his era. Emily Watson is moving as the classic matriarch. TESTAMENT OF YOUTH is a true memoir of death on the battlefields and the last breath of an era. MT



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